Steve Lacy

Scratching the Seventies/Dreams

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The three-CD box set that makes up Scratching the Seventies/Dreams represents Steve Lacy's first expatriate records in Paris beginning with sessions in June of 1969 and concluding in 1977 with six of the seven members of the Steve Lacy Septet (pianist Bobby Few was not yet on board). Here, five complete albums tell the story of that decade in the musical aesthetic of Steve Lacy's development as an artist as well as a composer and bandleader. From disc one we are allowed to revisit Lacy as a solo performer on Lapis from 1971. Here Taoism's mighty influence holds sway over Lacy's playing and improvising. From the late-'60s avant-gardism he so deeply enmeshed himself in comes a different topical discussion on the horn. Here, pieces that became ensemble standards in later years, like "The Way," "Existence," and "Rain," had their first hearing as solo works. Lacy's non-reliance -- for perhaps the only time in his professional career -- on the music of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols for inspiration -- is readily apparent. He's digging his own ground here -- not totally separate from the blues, but seriously extrapolated upon are its themes; they are abstracted into elongated statements on tonality, breath, and melodic invention. The rest of disc one is devoted to Scraps from 1974. Here Lacy teams with Irene Aebi, Steve Potts, and Kent Carter in early settings for the sextet that also included flutist and percussionist Kenneth Tyler and pianist Michael Smith. The signature tunes here are the extreme high-register bleats of "The Wire," and the angular turnaround blues motifs in "Ladies," both of which would be staples of the band's live sets for years to come.

Disc two pairs the album Dreams, one of Lacy's finest, with the first part of his Paris 1969 debut Roba. On the former from 1975, Lacy engaged Steve Potts, Irene Aebi, Jean-Jacques Avenel, Carter, and Tyler, but also vanguard guitarist Derek Bailey and another pair on "Crops": in the rock personages of Jack Treese and Boulou Ferre. Interestingly enough, Lacy and Ornette Coleman were traveling in similar directions at this time, taking small, catchy melodies; rasping them up; and playing them incessantly throughout the body of a work where improvisation could displace them without displacing the tune. Bailey plays electric here and is positively funky, especially on "The Uh Uh Uh" and "Them Oil." Aebi's vocals -- which can be irritating as hell -- are processed electronically here, making them far more palatable. Dreams is easily Lacy's greatest moment from the 70s, and the one that sounds, simultaneously, most and least like him.

With Roba, from 1969, that closes out the disc, Lacy worked with an Italian group with the exception of Aebi. Most notable is trumpeter Enrico Rava. Recorded in a live setting, it's poor in sound quality, full of cavernous echo and distortion; but it marks what would soon become the end of a period in Lacy's life. Given that the rest of the music here is collected from the 1970s, it can be assumed that this material is included here only for the purpose of rounding out all three discs.

Finally, on disc three, along with the conclusion of Roba (at the end of the disc), we get Lacy's legendary album Owl. With an octet (including everybody but Few from the septet) which includes Lawrence Butch Morris and Takashi Kako on piano, the band on Owl digs deep into Lacy's obsession with poetry, and texts from Frances Picabia, Guillarme Appolinaire, Salvador Dali, Paul Eluard, Brion Gysin, and others, which are then set to a lush ensemble treatment that involves advanced harmonic studies of intervalic figures based on the shifting timbres of individual instruments. Lacy's band took Eastern ceremonial musics, Western jazz standards, and pop tunes, and cut angles from them: he took their most intrinsic elements, threw out the rest, and, as Pound had admonished, made it new. Tracks like the title cut, "The Owl," with Aebi's wondrously lyrical and sweet vocals, and Lacy and Potts' intricate, off-minor melody that is danced to the center of the ballroom by Avenel and Oliver Johnson, are remarkable in their complexity and instinctual "songfullness." Later, on "Wish," the same tuneful aspiration is taken apart and reinvented by group improvisation, and "Blinks" makes its first appearance with its Latin intro that is skewed by modal erudition and percussive sound clusters from the middle registers of the horns before moving off into hard bop harmonic and melodic figures.

Ultimately, this is an essential collection for Lacy fans. As the story unfolds one small piece at a time over three discs, the vision of the man comes clearly into view and his true genius is revealed. Lacy saw jazz in the 70s as a way to make sense of the entire world -- a world in transition and fragmentation. His musical view was all-inclusive (note Bailey's rock and funk moves on the Dreams album) and sought order using a musical language that would open the doors to dialogue: first with musicians and then with other artists everywhere. The amazing thing is that -- at least in the avant-garde music world -- he succeeded: because everyone there cites him as an influence. And for that vision and temerity he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant. This set on Saravah, which is the only way to get Lacy's '70s records without paying a fortune for them, tells the story of both how and why. This is an essential purchase for any serious jazz library.

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